Despite the modest $30 billion relief from sequestration for the next two years, the Pentagon faces much leaner defense budgets as far as the eye can see. To build the strongest set of forces under these circumstances, defense planners should reset their strategic priorities.
In creating the fiscal 2015 budget and future years defense program, they assumed sequestration would end and budgets would grow, requiring only minor changes in strategy. But that approach will produce unrealistic force sizes and unfulfilled capability expectations that will ultimately result in hollow forces and unmet commitments.
The No. 1 priority is to reassert nuclear-based deterrence under the triad as the centerpiece of defense strategy, and to modernize both the B61 weapon and the three nuclear delivery systems, upgrading land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and developing a new long-range, strategic bomber.
Next in priority should be strengthening airpower forces by increasing annual production of the full complement of F-35 stealth fighter jets to provide the means to defeat adversaries deploying sophisticated anti-access and area-denial capabilities.
Third, the Pentagon should find ways to reduce the enormous duplication and overlap in capabilities among the services and force greater interdependence.
The net result of these three actions would be stronger forces at lower cost, capable of deterring and defeating foes in less time with fewer losses than is possible under current force planning.
Groups like “Global Zero” advocating large reductions, even elimination, of nuclear weapons abound. But even though the Cold War is over, nuclear-based deterrence is as important today as ever. Back then, our nation depended on nuclear forces, both strategic and tactical, to overcome our disadvantage in numbers, weapons and geography to deter the USSR and Warsaw Pact in Europe.
Today, with smaller forces dictated by leaner budgets, we must similarly rely on the deterrent value of nuclear forces against emerging adversaries with much larger military forces in Asia and the Middle East.
Moreover, our nuclear triad, particularly the bomber leg, provides our umbrella of deterrence for our friends around the world. This extended deterrence, stretching from Japan and South Korea to NATO, provides our allies needed security while allowing them to forgo developing their own nuclear weapons, thus having the added value of promoting non-proliferation. Strategic nuclear-based deterrence must remain the backbone of national security strategy.
On the conventional forces side, our forces will become smaller, but the threats and capabilities of adversaries continue to grow. Greater reliance on the strength and flexibility of airpower is the right formula when the size of the military shrinks under leaner budgets. The unmistakable turnaround last year in the F-35 program toward lower unit cost provides the means for the combination of F-22s and F-35s to become force multipliers, allowing airpower to dominate with smaller numbers.
But to generate returns on the nation’s investment in the F-35, Congress must increase the plane’s annual production rate over many years. Paradoxically, the smart way forward is to increase, not curtail, production of the F-35 to make it affordable for us and the 10 allied nations that depend on it for their security.
We failed to exploit the investment in the B-2 bomber and F-22 stealth fighter because we lowered quantities to the point where increased unit costs made further production unaffordable. That must not happen to the F-35.
The Pentagon should eliminate the massive duplication and overlap in forces and capabilities among the services, and enforce a strategy of joint interdependence. Mission areas such as airpower, special operations, intelligence and surveillance experience enormous duplication caused by service parochialism and the desire to operate independently of the other services. We can no longer afford the duplication that exists in our armed forces. Interdependence is a long overdue solution.
The dilemma of growing threats and leaner budgets demands new ways of looking at defense priorities.
A good start is to put three priorities at the head of the list: strategic deterrence based on the nuclear triad; increased reliance on airpower by exploiting the capabilities of the F-35; and enforcing joint interdependence. ■
By retired Gen. eral John Michael Loh, a former US Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. He consults for several defense contractors, including Pratt & Whitney, which supplies engines for the F-35.